- Video by ITV News Correspondent Emma Murphy
A chartered jet carrying 143 people from the US military base in Cuba tried to land in a thunderstorm in north Florida and ended up in the river next to Naval Air Station Jacksonville.
Authorities said everyone on board emerged without critical injuries, climbing on to the wings to be rescued.
The Boeing 737 – arriving from Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, with 136 passengers and seven crew on board – came to a stop in shallow water in St Johns River.
Everyone on board was alive and accounted for, Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office said, with 21 adults taken to local hospitals in good condition.
Marine units from the sheriff’s department and Jacksonville Fire Rescue along with first responders from the naval air station helped passengers and crew to safety.
Captain Michael Connor, commanding officer of NAS Jacksonville, said those on board were a mix of civilian and military personnel, and that while some were staying in the area, others planned to fly on to other parts of the country.
“I think it is a miracle,” he said. “We could be talking about a different story this evening.”
Several pets were on the plane and their status was not immediately clear.
A navy statement early on Saturday offered “hearts and prayers” to their owners, and said safety issues prevented rescuers from immediately retrieving the animals.
It is not known how long it will take to remove the plane from the river, but Capt Connor said the landing gear appeared to be resting on the river bed, making it unlikely for the aircraft to float away.
He said crews began working to contain any jet fuel leaks almost immediately after securing the passengers’ safety.
Liz Torres told the Florida Times-Union that she heard what sounded like a gunshot on Friday night from her home in Orange Park, about five miles south of NAS Jacksonville. She then drove down to a Target car park where police and firefighters were staging to find out more.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” she said.
The Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department posted on Twitter that approximately 90 personnel responded to the scene, adding that the department’s special operations team had trained with marine units for a similar incident earlier on Friday.
Navy security and emergency response personnel were on the scene and monitoring the situation, with family members who were expecting the arrival of passengers instructed to stand by.
Officials did not immediately say what caused the plane to leave the runway.
Capt Connor said National Transportation Safety Board investigators are already on their way.